There are some words that, when combined in a sentence, inspire an instant reaction. Few men can truthfully deny they experience a feeling of excitement when they hear the words ‘jelly’ and ‘wrestling’ together, because this usually precedes an action-packed evening of watching WWE and eating raspberry jelly. I once spat lukewarm coffee all over my own grandmother because a waiter innocently used the words ‘peanut-butter’ and ‘shepherdess’ within three words of each other, although that particular reaction is perhaps best attributed to my shady and often loathsome past.
That loathsome past has also featured an unhealthy dose of Star Wars, Star Trek, and anything that potentially has a goblin in it. So, naturally when I pick up a game with the words ‘sword’ and ‘stars’ in the title, my immediate reaction is one of mild hysteria. As such, I’m going to litter this review with unnecessary details about my life, insert inappropriate movie quotes, and in general act like a giddy teenager. Booyakasha.
Sword of the Stars is a roguelike. If, like me, you are educationally subnormal and had to Google that term, that means it takes elements from old-school RPG Rogue, including randomly generated dungeons, turn-based combat, and permadeath so that your deaths are...well, permanent. The genre seems to be having a resurgence with the success of games like The Binding of Isaac, a twisted, Freudian field-day, and FTL: Faster than Light, a game frequently described by players as “holy shit, I’m dead again.” Although such a game wouldn’t usually be my thing (I prefer games that involve cowboys, post-apocalyptic wastelands, and shepherdesses) I sank into the pit with an open mind.
You begin, as in so many cases, with a tutorial. Some would call this a cliché, to include a tutorial at the beginning of the game when it is most useful, but then I would call them a wanker, so all’s fair. It’s a fairly comprehensive tutorial and I feel pretty confident going into level one, but they skate over the permadeath thing and I roar in, guns blazing, like the bastard love-child of Ice Cube and a rhinoceros (which, as an aside, would pretty much just look like Ice Cube only with horns and skin like high-grade sandpaper. Everybody has an animal counterpart, and Ice Cube’s is a rhinoceros. Mine is the Himalayan yak. Winston Churchill’s was the cane toad, and Eminem’s is a meerkat. These are just some of the things I know.) Naturally, I immediately am killed and I head RIGHT BACK TO THE BEGINNING. I realise this is not a typical RPG. I begin to feel the fear.
What’s your status?! Dead.
The sense of fear doesn’t lessen as I progress through the game. Rather like a fine wine, over time it becomes more profound, stronger, and more capable of killing you quickly. You spend five minutes attempting to unlock a door to discover it houses six robots with machine guns who obliterate you inside of three rounds (he’s a wreckin’ machine, Rock!) leaving you to return, once again, to the beginning. In many ways the game plays like an old-school platformer – you die and then you start again, however it’s combined with RPG elements that make it time-consuming enough for you to get really pissed off when you die.
Given the game is class-based (at the start you pick either Marine, Scout or Engineer) there’s naturally plenty of stats and abilities to put your experience points into, giving the sense that there’s plenty of ways to play this game. As far as the actual gameplay goes, it’s standard enough PC fare, with traditional WASD movement and using the other thing, the mouse, to do other stuff. All good.
On top of enemies with sheer power, some inflict status effects akin to the Final Fantasy realms including disease, poison, and blindness which essentially means you’re screwed because you can’t see a damn thing for about a million turns. And in this game being able to see is imperative; there always seems to be something lurking in the shadows. The fog of war is all-pervasive, and another interesting quirk is that you can’t see behind you – watch out for sneak attacks.
As far as narrative goes, The Pit has a dark and gritty storyline that revolves around an outbreak of disease that turns soldiers into ghouls-zombie things. Where’s the cure? In a pit somewhere. Cue dramatic music. It’s a fine story; nothing too spectacular, but certainly not as bad as a Matthew McConaughey film.
Loot, glorious loot!
Each level yields a different variety of items, from weaponry and mods to food to health packs, and there’s enough choice to make you stop and think very hard about what you’re doing. Applying a mod to a weapon, for example, can be either good and bad, as some will increase your damage while others will lower it; it’s up to you to remember what colour of mod does what and to avoid the detrimental ones. With a strong array of weaponry, I can’t fault the loot system of the game too much as there’s endless variations of guns and ammo to play around with.
Should you buy it?
If you’re really into the roguelike genre, you’ll enjoy this game. I can’t claim to have been blown away by it, but there were certainly some very cool moments during my playthrough and as this game won’t set you back a huge amount on Steam anyway, if you’re craving some retro, sci-fi action, you could do worse than Sword of the Stars: The Pit.